In late September, I spent four days visiting London. It is impossible to even scratch the surface of all the historical sites that can be found in Britain’s capital, so I had to choose. After a brief visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral and (the outside of) Westminster Abbey, I decided to spend the entire day at the Tower of London.
I was not disappointed.
At the heart of the multi-building complex is the White Tower, built by William the Conqueror in the 1070s as a fortress designed to reaffirm his power over the defeated Londoners. Over the centuries, it served as a royal residence, a mint, a prison, and a place where arms and armor were made and stored. Today it houses the Royal Armouries, a collection of weapons and armor sure to appeal to anyone interested in military history.
In later times, other buildings were added to the original medieval Tower complex, including a double wall with a series of round towers with slits for archers and bowmen defending the castle. The whole thing was surrounded by a wide moat, which was filled during the reign of Queen Victoria and is now a grassy field.
While the Tower is famous as a site of some high-profile executions, in reality only a handful of people lost their lives there throughout all of its history, including Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard (both wives of King Henry VIII) as well as Lady Jane Grey and her husband Guilford Dudley. Most of its inmates who were condemned to death were killed on a nearby Tower Hill, outside the walls of the complex. The last people to lose their lives in the Tower were several German spies shot during World War I.
Among other prominent prisoners were the writer and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, and Guy Fawkes, who was involved in the failed Gunpowder Plot in 1605.
In addition to those who ran afoul of a king or a queen, several royals also lost their lives in the Tower. Henry VI was murdered there in 1471 and the two young sons of Edward IV disappeared within its walls in 1483, presumably killed by their uncle Richard III. The ghosts of several of victims are said to still haunt the grounds, including that of Anne Boleyn and the young princes.
Today, there are still people living in the Tower complex. They are members of the Yeomen Warders and their families who look after the historic buildings, carry out ceremonial duties such as the Ceremony of the Keys, and offer tours to visitors, which I highly recommend.
In a building opposite the White Tower are housed the Crown Jewels, a collection of crowns (including St. Edward’s Crown), orbs, scepters, robes and other bejeweled ceremonial regalia worn by kings, queens, and their consorts for coronations since the 1661.
No post about The Tower of London would be complete without the mention of its raven population. There are seven ravens permanently kept on the grounds because, according to a legend, should they leave the Tower the palace and the kingdom would fall. They may have their wings clipped, but the birds are quite pampered, being fed bird biscuits and pounds of raw meat daily, and looked after by the veterinarians from the London Zoo.
There is so much more history to be found in London that I will definitely be going back soon.
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